Saturday, September 05, 2015

How Big Was World War II?

Many general histories of World War II begin by quantitatively describing the size of the war. Numbers in history are often problematic. It is, for example, generally safe to assume that all quantitative historical data is inaccurate or incomplete. Moreover, very large numbers are difficult for us to comprehend. We know the purchasing power of $100, but the current estimate of $13.3 trillion for the national debt is beyond our grasp. Nevertheless, many authors will observe that World War II is the largest event in human history. How do we understand something that is that big?

One approach is to use geographical references. World War II, for example, was fought on every continent including Antarctica. Because the war was indeed global, however, events happened in places that few had ever heard of and fewer could find on a map. Where is Tinian, Saipan, Malm├ędy, Kiev, or even Bastogne? Who on earth had ever visited Ft. Polk, Louisiana, or Camp Kilmer, New Jersey? Where was the Gila River War Relocation Center and what was was going on there? When 21-year old Elmer Childers, a recent Gosport High School graduate, and his family stood on the platform of the Gosport, Indiana railway terminal in January 1944 to wish him farewell as he boarded the Monon (“The Hoosier Line”) passenger train to Indianapolis and eventually to the United States Army in Europe, they may not have a much better geographical mental image of where he was going than those who stood on the docks of the Spanish port of Palos to watch Christopher Columbus sail.

Or one may also employ demographic measures to describe the size of World War II. For example, the estimated total casualties (killed in action —KIA; plus wounded in action — WIA; plus missing in action — MIA) from WWII was 60 million people or about 3 percent of the world’s population. If one adds deaths from disease and starvation then estimates reach 80 million. The size of those figures is beyond our imagination.

Let’s try another approach. According to Max Hastings (Inferno, p. 11, see below) between September 1939 and August 1945, an average of 27,000 people died every day. According to the 2010 census the population of Worthington, Ohio was 13,572. When one walks or drives through the village of Worthington located on the northwest of Columbus, the roads are crowded with traffic, the restaurants busy, and the lines are long at Kroger. Consider, however, the world lost a village the size of Worthington twice a day for every day of the war. It is still staggering, but it gives a picture we can see in our imagination.

Economic measures are another common way to measure the size of World War II. For example,
In 1939 the United States produced 3,000 airplanes. By the end of the war six years later the American aircraft industry had manufactured and delivered over 300,000 airplanes. In 1939 the United States Army had less than a dozen tanks suitable for combat deployment. By 1945 American firms had delivered over 23,000 tanks (4,680 were M4 Sherman tanks) to the Army. The United States produced 676,433 2½-ton trucks (the iconic “6x6”) and 647,870 jeeps.  Our small arms manufacturers produced 4,028,395 M1 Garand rifles and 6,117,767 M1 carbines.   

In 1937 the US Navy had 5 aircraft carriers; in 1941 it had 8. By 1945 it had 27 aircraft carriers. In addition to aircraft carriers, the United States Navy added an additional 1,200 combat ships. At war’s end the United States Navy owned 70% of the world’s total naval tonnage. 

Another way to evaluate economic data is to include the production numbers prior to the war. From above we can see US aircraft carrier production increased three-fold between 1941 and 1945; a figure matched by no other sea power. After the war American industry switched from war goods to commercial goods and had little trouble meeting civilian demand for new cars and refrigerators. Consumers were less pleased, however, about post-war inflation. While the World War II production figures for the United States appear huge, it seems there was enough economic capacity for American industry to match new (and ever increasing) consumer demands. Maybe we should approach the word “huge” from another perspective.   

Raw World War II production numbers of trucks, airplanes, and ships might be more relative than we sometimes assume. It may be more accurate to consider the large World War II production runs only in the context of the 1940s. Consider that in 2008 Ford was the second largest US-based automobile maker, 5th ranked worldwide, and employed 213,000 workers. In 2008 Ford made 5.5 million cars. In 2014 there were 16.4 million new car registrations issued in the US alone. That suggests the so-called production “miracle” of World War II was only a prelude to what technology and the American economy would become. The “arsenal of democracy”, it appeared, was just beginning to spread its wings.  

How during the war did America achieve such production figures? What accounts for its ability to become the “arsenal of democracy?” There are two reasons to explain why US production figures stand out. First, and most obvious: the war was not fought on American soil. Our industries and population centers were not bombed or starved for primary resources. Second, and most important US goods and products were produced by assembly line methods. By contrast, European production was essentially craft work. Compared to American production, European industry was labor intensive and time consuming. 

I can write pages on statistical summaries describing in ever greater detail the size of World War II. In the end, the data might not satisfactorily answer the question of magnitude. However, one of the central figures in our story recorded an anecdote that tells us more about size than do columns of numbers.  

On the morning of D-Day CPT Henry M. Hills, Jr., MC, one of our surgeons, was assigned to the United States Army 12th Evacuation Hospital (EVAC) that was stationed on the southeast coast of England. They were preparing to treat the first casualties that would come back from the beaches of Normandy. At 2330 on 5 June the transport planes carrying the 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division to their drop zones behind the Normandy beaches began taking off. When they flew over the 12th EVAC toward the channel they were about 500 feet off the ground. There were over 870 transport planes carrying 13,100 paratroopers and 3,937 glider troops. Each serial was about 1,000 feet apart; individual planes within a serial were often no more than 50ft apart.  It took 3 hours for all of the planes to fly over their position. By the time the last plane passed over the 12th EVAC, the first airborne troops had been on the ground in France for two hours.  

CPT Hills and thousands of other eyewitnesses retold the story of what they saw that night for the rest of their lives. And that is the answer to the question: How Big Was World War II? It was that big.

Let me recommend three more general histories of World War II: 

Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), 2000. This is a detailed operational history of World War II by two of America’s preeminent military historians. World War II is complicated and many authors attempt to reduce the complexity by discussing one sub-topic at a time. Murray and Millett, on the other hand, choose the more difficult task of keeping the reader aware that many events are happening at the same time and some of those events are causally related. Some reviewers criticized this book because it was unlike contemporary military histories in that it focused on the actual fighting and not on social and cultural issues. I, on the other hand, think that is one of the book’s strengths. 

Max Hastings, Inferno: The World At War: 1939-1945 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 2011. This work is especially good at describing and accounting for the human sacrifice and human cost of World War II. It is reflective and sobering.

Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint, Total War: Causes and Courses of the Second World War (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books), 1972. Because this is an older work, it obviously does take advantage of recent World War II scholarship. Its advantage for us, however, is that it is written from the perspective of the British Empire and, consequently, includes details of the war in the British Commonwealth that most American general World War II histories lack. Don’t worry, this book won’t turn you into a British imperialist, but it will give an insight to the legacy of an empire on which the sun never set.

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